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Faculty criticize UNR’s plan for the “Return of the Pack”


The state’s higher education institutions are due to turn over their plans for reopening during the fall semester to the Nevada System of Higher Education on June 30.

The University of Nevada’s plan is already being criticized by faculty members.

This Is Reno reached out to UNR officials to learn more about reopening plans, including changes to academic programs, projected enrollment numbers, virtual versus in-person classes and services available on campus.

Kerri Garcia Hendricks—executive director of marketing and communications at the University of Nevada, Reno—said of the plan school administrators  will submit to NSHE’s board on June 30,  “At the end of our spring semester, the University’s vice presidents, deans and leaders of our major units [met] to provide comprehensive plans for re-entry to University operations. The plans have been formulated with each division, unit, college or school’s unique contributions to our overall institutional mission in mind. 

“Working with our Issues Management Team and an internal Recovery Working Group, these plans were synthesized into an overall Return to University Operations plan that serve as the basis of our ‘Phase 2’ actions. The plan is in alignment with directives from Gov. Steve Sisolak in the State of Nevada’s Roadmap to Recovery, as well as with guidance from the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly. The plan is vetted by the Chancellor and his Internal NSHE COVID-19 Task Force.”

Information available online indicates that the university will not eliminate any programs of study, as it did following the 2008 financial crisis.

“[President] Johnson thinks that he can just push people around. And the kind of hard line, conservative, patriarchal approach that he takes for almost every single issue is really problematic.”John Nolan, Nevada Faculty Alliance

According to Garcia Hendricks, information is unavailable concerning how fall enrollment numbers are shaping up.

“According to Steve Maples, University director of admissions, ‘The best we can tell at this point is we are on track for a similar number of students to last year’s fall opening,’” she wrote in an email response to This Is Reno.

Garcia Hendricks said enrollment numbers generally aren’t available until after the final add/drop date for classes, which is Sept. 2 this year.

Knowing enrollment numbers for specific classes will be important in determining how—and where on campus—they’ll be taught. The university is planning to use what’s known as a HyFlex model. 

Basically, students in a class will alternate days on which they appear in-person and days when they join the class online via Zoom. Students with underlying health conditions can petition the school to study entirely online. Classes of more than 200 students will be entirely online. 

Those with fewer than 200 will be held in person at 50 percent capacity—with two groups (more if needed) switching off on days when they’re in class.

NSHE spokesperson Francis McCabe said in an email that the details of the institutions’ plans will be made public once they’re finalized. Each institution will present its plan to the board as an information item. That will take place at an upcoming meeting. There is not a date set for it yet.

All of this planning comes amid big changes for UNR—some expected, others resulting from the pandemic.

NSHE was asked by Gov. Steve Sisolak to cut 20 percent of its budget due to funding shortfalls resulting from COVID-19. NSHE is also in the process of on-boarding a new chancellor to replace Reilly—and UNR is searching for a new president to replace Marc Johnson.

According to McCabe, the “search for the UNR president is back on.” It was postponed due to COVID

“The search for the permanent president of UNR will take place in September, and will include campus visits, meetings and interviews with the search committee and various university and community stakeholders for the finalists,” McCabe explained. “The finalist interviews at UNR are now scheduled for Sept. 14, 15 and 16, with the Regents making their decision on Sept. 17.”

Representation from UNR will give their reopening plans to the NSHE Board of Regents on June 30. However, no public meeting of the board is scheduled for that date.

In the meantime, UNR faculty have expressed concerns about reopening plans. More than 200 faculty members have signed a petition asking administrators to reconsider reopening plans, but there has been little response as of June 26.

Faculty Alliance opposes administration’s plan

This Is Reno spoke with Nevada Faculty Alliance President for UNR John Nolan, and the organization’s vice president, Melissa Burnham.

“The faculty senate started out, and they passed a resolution that detailed what faculty wanted in terms of a return to campus,” Nolan said. “They wanted to make sure that faculty could choose the types of classes [online versus in-person], that it was a safe environment, that they had capacity for testing and they would actually do testing…safety in terms of cleaning and sanitization to make sure the virus didn’t spread.

“They sent that out…and the administration ignored it—didn’t respond to it at all. And then they put out a plan that basically ignored what faculty had asked for.”

Nolan said the university’s plans don’t include COVID-19 testing for faculty or students.

“We did find out that they’re testing for the athletic program, but they’re not doing it for students or for faculty—so that is a little bit disconcerting,” Nolan said.

Nolan said the “NFA kind of jumped in…and basically said, ‘We don’t support this plan as it’s written now. We want more flexibility for faculty in order to choose what suits their courses best. We have quite a few members who do want to be in person, but [the opposite is true, too].”

The NFA’s other stated concern was about HyFlex and its one-size-fits-all approach to courses taught at the university. They believe the model is untested. As of Friday morning, 223 faculty members had signed the petition.

UNR President Marc Johnson. Image: UNR.
UNR President Marc Johnson. Image: UNR.

“We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of anger and disgust about how difficult and onerous the process has been, in terms of paperwork,” Nolan said. “They’re claiming they have a process that you can apply for [teaching online only], but in reality it’s  [a] process to weed people out and make them go away because it’s so difficult to get approved.”

He and Burnham are displeased that among the requirements for professors seeking to teach classes strictly online is a note from their physicians.

“We’d all like to teach our classes. I’m a lecturer, a Socratic method type of person. I want to be in the classroom. I like that a lot. I like my job,” Nolan said. “I like interacting with students, but it’s just not safe yet—especially for large classes, so we’d like to see a little more flexibility, like UNLV has done.”

Nolan said UNR is the only NSHE institution working to develop this type of plan for reopening. He said it’s very restrictive and puts not only faculty but students at risk.

Nolan and Burnham also wonder how faculty teaching larger classes will manage to give equal attention to students attending in-person versus online—and how they’ll monitor questions coming in from remote learners. During its June 8 faculty meeting on reopening, administrators suggested that student volunteers might be employed to help with this. 

Burnham said she thinks that’s a bad idea.

“I don’t know that that’s fair to the student,” she said. “It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to have a student helper for monitoring the chat when their learning will be disrupted by doing that.

“In the College of [Education], we haven’t heard about teaching assistant assignments,” she continued. “They’re trying to get most of our teaching assistants teaching classes, rather than helping with classes…I imagine we’ll have maybe 10 hours a week. If that’s the case, most of their time would be spent helping in class rather than grading and stuff like that.”

University administrators have stated during several meetings that in speaking with students they’ve been told that in-person classes will be an important factor in their decisions to return to campus.

“They apparently surveyed students at the end of the spring semester,” Burnham said. “And, of course, students are going to say, ‘Yes, I would prefer to be in person.’ But do they know, have they been told, what that’s going to look like—that you’re not going to be socializing with your friends; that you’re going to be there, masked, distanced in a classroom. You’re going to be responsible for disinfecting your space when you come into and leave the classroom. You’re going to be released one row at a time, you know, like in elementary school.…It’s a choreography—is what I’m envisioning.”

Nolan said he feels like school administrators work with and listen to the concerns of students because their numbers make it necessary.

“Because faculty numbers only a thousand, or so, [President] Johnson thinks that he can just push people around,” Nolan said. “And the kind of hard line, conservative, patriarchal approach that he takes for almost every single issue is really problematic.”

“The lack of faculty involvement in the planning process is really scary,” Nolan said.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.